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Travel, Passports, and the Differences between Expats and Immigrants

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July 25, 2015


The Local Tea Party (LTP) just posted “Travel Is Your Passion? All Lies,” about (mostly white) Westerners who like to write about what the writer calls “Travel with a capital ‘T’.”  It’s a genre familiar to us, long before Elizabeth GIlbert’s Eat, Pray, Love became an international bestseller: the white traveler leaves behind a life in the west and embarks upon a journey in exotic places. Everything is fodder for Change (with a capital “C”), the natives are friendly and charming and exist merely to further the white traveler’s unfolding, filled with the sensual tastes of curries, memories of incredibly hot sex, and a final, nearly orgasmic healing that makes them A Higher Kind of Being.


As LTP, writing from the vantage point of an Indian (it’s the internet and it’s Tumblr so, really, this could be a hella savvy white guy for all I know, but it’s worth a read), points out, no one really questions the material realities of such journeys:

Randomly they will come and parade nonsense stories like ‘How I quit my job and Travelled the world’ (Travel with a capital ‘T’) or ‘This guy quit his job and traveled 60 countries in 60 days’ or some such nonsense in front of our eyes and confuse our already confused brains.


First of all, such kind of travel and stuff is not possible with Indian passport. Not in this lifetime.


For Indians in particular (and presumably for many others not in the “First World,” traveling anywhere means providing proof of adequate funds (which is to say, proof that you’re not likely to abscond in favour of the “better life”).  As LTP puts it:

If they are not still convinced that you are going to come back means, they will ask for even more documents to show proof of funds. So I now have to take a spade and shovel and dig our apartment to search for any hidden treasure or hope to find that ancient property document that my great-great-grandmother obtained by cheating Robert Clive. Where else will I get more ‘funds’ from? Idiots.


LTP’s satirical piece points to several key differences that define travel for most people who don’t travel with the privileges of a US, Canadian, or, say, German passport.  


It’s a similar theme ostensibly taken up by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin in another widely-circulated Guardian piece from March of this year, “Why Are White People Expats When the Rest of Us Are Immigrants?”  Koutonin points, rightly, to the fact that Africans, Asians, and Arabs who migrate for work to other countries don’t get referred to as expats; they’re only called immigrants.  Koutonin only focuses on those who become expats for business reasons, but in fact “expat” is reserved for a mostly white, privileged class of people who move to and reside in places other than their countries of origin, like Dubai, France, Hong Kong, and India.  “Expat,” a term associated both with business classes and with groups of people engaged in the arts (think James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein), has come to mean a permanent status of being temporary.  


Koutonin is right to point to the discrepancy, and the piece still shows up in discussions about travel, migration, and immigration.  But unlike LTP, whose bite barely conceals what is, ultimately, a massive issue of class and inequality, his concern is not nearly as critical as it appears.

Ultimately, Koutonin’s concern is inflected by a degree of class longing. Towards the end, he writes,


Top African professionals going to work in Europe are not considered expats. They are immigrants. Period. “I work for multinational organisations both in the private and public sectors. And being black or coloured doesn’t gain me the term “expat”. I’m a highly qualified immigrant, as they call me, to be politically correct,” says an African migrant worker.


He goes on to make what is, I suspect, for those who praise and circulate the piece, the clincher, that these distinctions are ultimately racist:

Most white people deny that they enjoy the privileges of a racist system. And why not? But our responsibility is to point out and to deny them these privileges, directly related to an outdated supremacist ideology.


The problem, though, is that Koutonin’s real problem isn’t with the system that produces the distinction between expats and workers. The difference between expatriates and workers is primarily a class difference, so when an African or Indian classified as a “migrant worker” takes umbrage at the nomenclature, as many do, it’s about them not wanting to be associated with the sweaty millions, many of whom enter without the relative privileges of visas and perform tasks that professionals are not called upon to do: domestic work in Hong Kong, building museums in Dubai, and so on.


In the end, Koutonin appears peeved that he and others, perhaps more broadly the entrepreneurs he writes for in his regular blog, don’t get to enjoy the class privilege of being expatriates.  It’s not hard to discern that he wants to broaden the term expatriate to include the “top African professionals,” but only so that they might enter into the same presumed privileges.  


Which is to say: Koutonin wants the race problem to be resolved in favour of well-off professionals. He’s just fine with the class and inequality problem.


Img: Barge Haulers on the Volga, Ilya Repin, 1870-1873

Embedded links and additional resources:

Lily Kuo, “Who Helps the Helpers? How Hong Kong’s “maid trade” is making life worse for domestic workers throughout Asia.”

Andrew Ross, “High Culture and Hard Labor.”

Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Diversity.”


This is a free piece intended to raise questions, not provide all the answers.  

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